TELEVISION: JUST ADD LAUGHTER
January 23, 2005
By Stephen Armstrong
She’s as cool as her character in CSI, but Marg Helgenberger is also a rock fan who’d like to do slapstick, discovers Stephen Armstrong
Meeting Marg Helgenberger feels a little like stepping back in time. In part, it’s because the bar in the London hotel where we meet is dripping with faux-deco decadence. The setting seems entirely appropriate. Helgenberger looks, talks and laughs like an icon from Hollywood’s golden era: all cheekbones and intelligent, challenging stares. It isn’t hard to imagine her trading quips with Cary Grant or helping Jimmy Stewart out of a pond. In the 1990s, she was relegated to the substitute’s bench for her mature good looks, wit and beauty. Thanks, surprisingly, to Jerry Bruckheimer, and his forensic cop drama CSI, however, she’s as close to being a global superstar as the small screen allows.
CSI has finally given Helgenberger a part that fits after years of supporting roles, playing the likes of the cancer-ridden mum in Erin Brockovich. Her character, Catherine Willows, is a cold, rational scientific type who applies her brains and some extremely impressive technology to the search for microscopic clues at blood-soaked crime scenes. She is thus the leader of the new pack of smart, sassy women who make American telly drama so much fun to watch. The character’s past keeps butting up against her icy exterior. A former “exotic dancer”, she’s also a single mum who, in a recent episode, discovered that her biological father was a dubious casino owner. Entire internet sites are devoted to speculation about Willows’s exotic gyrations, and the clamour for flashbacks to her character’s former career makes up a significant part of Helgenberger’s fan mail.
“I think that’s best left to the imagination,” she drawls drily. “Not because I’m embarrassed about my body or whatever, but because it’s tawdry and unnecessary. We shoot in strip clubs quite often, and one time we stayed to watch. Well, I hadn’t been to one for a while. It was all nude,” she laughs throatily, “which was kind of shocking. It was a bit like a biological exam. I was like: oh lordy,” she laughs again; whether at herself or the nudity, it’s hard to tell. “I always tell people that when Catherine was stripping, it was pre-lap dancing and pre-silicone. Everybody has fake tits these days.”
It’s something of a shock to find that Helgenberger is shockable. As Catherine, she banters with her co-star, William Petersen, using the slick timing of Hepburn in a lab-based screwball comedy. Perhaps it’s the girl from small-town Nebraska talking. She was born in 1958 in North Bend, a farming town with a population of 1,200. All her chums were farming kids. Her dad was the local meat inspector, and during her high-school summers, she packed meat. “I have so many stories about how wacky that place was,” she snorts. “Being tossed accidentally into tubs, foremen caring more about the carcass than me. They were known as company men, but I just referred to them as assholes.”
Her route from meatpacker to Hollywood’s meat rack is classic — college, talent scout, soap opera — but with a few racy twists. For all her poise, Helgenberger has always been a motorbike nut, getting a job as a weathergirl on a Nebraska station partly so that she could ride pillion on her buddy’s tour bike for the two hours it took to get there and back. “I had to do all my own reports from the AP weather service, and make all my own maps,” she says proudly. She was asked to change her name, because the other two anchors were Harvey Nopplinger and Joyce Isenminger, and they thought Nopplinger, Isenminger and Helgenberger was a bit much. She raises a cool eyebrow. “So I took my grandmother’s maiden name, McCarty. Margy McCarty sounds quite cute. It could have led to a different career, though.”
Like the rest of the CSI cast — two of whom run theatre companies — she went to college with her eyes on the stage. A talent scout spotted her in The Taming of the Shrew, playing Kate, and she wound up as a rookie cop in the soap Ryan’s Hope, where she met her husband of 15 years, Alan Rosenberg. “It was in a plot line where I went undercover as a prostitute — I always play cops or criminals,” she laughs. “Alan played a character who owned the sleazy hotel I checked into. But we didn’t date until I ran into him four years later, on my second day in LA. I was in Bank of America, opening an account. He approached shyly and said, ‘Do you remember me?’ He was very cute. Why wouldn’t I remember him? So we exchanged numbers and I called him.”
Again, she sounds a little surprised that she would call a guy. When I comment on this, she reflects for a second. “It’s funny, because we were just in Rome and I get recognised quite a bit. Italian people would say to my friends that I seemed more accessible than they expected. On the one hand, I appreciate that, but on the other I think, am I really so reserved?” That’s what comes of playing this year’s ice queen, I venture. She smiles. Icily. “Well, she’s very cerebral,” she nods. “I keep asking the producers for more colour. It is so heavily plot-driven, and you do feel you’re upstaged by the props. Or the corpses. You get to feel a little bit ignored as an actor, but that’s the show. The camera will stay on you for 30 seconds while you’re gathering fibres, and there has to be something going on behind the eyeballs.”
Then she brightens up. “We are enhanced by some kick-ass music, and thank God for that. Sometimes when I’m doing a scene, I’ll be wondering what cool song they’ll put on it. Usually, it’s some really groovy English band, and the next day I call up the music supervisor, who is English, and say, ‘Who the hell was that?’ I’ve been introduced to so much great music.”
Which leads us on to a revelation I find somehow shocking — Marg Helgenberger is a Black Rebel Motorcycle Club fan.
She’s been following the dirty rock’n’rollers since they were playing to audiences of five in LA bars. She gave out their demo to Julia Roberts and Steven Soderbergh when she was filming Erin Brockovich. She even asked Soderbergh if he had time to direct a video for their first single (he didn’t). “They just want to do the music they want to do, and never listen to the record company,” she beams proudly. “They’re anti-image, and they don’t want to do anything that’s part of the Establishment.”
Back on less grungy ground, her next movie project is a comedy called In Good Company, with Dennis Quaid and Scarlett Johansson. “It was such a relief to get out of the world of death and decay and icky, disturbed people,” she laughs. “You don’t think it affects you, but it does in ways you’re not even aware of. Comedy? Bring it on.”
Might it be screwball comedy? She seems pleased by the question. “No, a comedy drama like Jerry Maguire. But I’d love to play something zany, because I think I take myself too seriously. People from Nebraska are very earnest and wholesome and polite, and I feel that can be a bit of a burden. I feel I could venture into that territory a little more — maybe a Carole Lombard role. Because she was just brilliant. Drop-dead gorgeous, but happy with slapstick. It’d be fun to do.”
I’m ushered out with the word slapstick still ringing in my head. I look back at her, draped elegantly across a chaise longue, a gentle smile playing on her lips, and I think: slapstick? Pratfalls? Marg Helgenberger? Did Ingrid Bergman ever slip on a banana skin? I think not.
The new series of CSI starts on Five on February 1 at 9pm